By Zayida Baker

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., serve, respectively, on Senate and House committees that reached a temporary, last-minute truce September 15 over the Federal Aviation Administration. Congress extended FAA operations through January.

Nelson sits on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and its Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security. Southerland sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Aviation Subcommittee.

The Surface and Air Transportation Programs Extension Act continues current funding levels for FAA programs, as well as programs for federal transit and highway safety and construction. The House passed it unanimously September 13 by a voice vote in which Southerland and other representatives did not object. It cleared the Senate just two days later, 92-6. Nelson voted in favor. The six dissenters were Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rand Paul, R-Ky., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was not present.

Congress presented this latest FAA extension, or short-term bill, for President Obama’s signature September 16, the very day that the previous extension, which passed August 5 after the two-week partial shutdown of the FAA, expired.

This is the 22nd FAA extension over four years and the eighth highway-bill extension over two years. It runs FAA funding through January 31 and transportation funding through March 31 at current levels.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, have not found compromise on a long-term deal. The Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House each passed a long-term reauthorization earlier this year. Stalling reconciliation of the two is a House provision restoring old rules for unionizing airline workers and another sunsetting the Essential Air Service, which subsidizes flights to rural areas at over $150 million per year.

Republicans want to reverse a 2010 ruling by the National Mediation Board that now requires that, in order to unionize, only a majority of voting employees, rather than a majority of all employees, must vote in favor. They would also extinguish EAS within four years.

Since they cannot agree on a long-term bill, House and Senate have authorized the FAA and other transportation agencies through short-term extensions. However, sometimes disagreements prevent even short-term solutions. For instance, the two-week shutdown ended August 5 when the Senate passed Mica’s extension—but it was only after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced plans to use a loophole to eviscerate cuts to EAS.

The latest extension is a “clean” bill that merely continues present funding and does not address EAS or the NMB ruling. It breezed through both houses just days after Mica introduced it in the Transportation Committee.

Mica sees a long-term FAA reauthorization just around the corner: “I can guarantee it will be the last extension because we must and we will pass a four-year authorization,” he announced September 13 on the House floor. Chairman Rockefeller commended the “clean” extension after it passed and renewed his call for the House to appoint conferees to begin final negotiations on a long-term reauthorization.

With Republicans forecasted to take the Senate and hold the House in 2012, they may have no incentive to bargain with Democrats on a long-term deal.

Sen. Paul unsuccessfully offered an amendment to the FAA extension that would revert funding to 2008 levels. The Senate also rejected his amendment to peg highway spending to the revenue in the Highway Trust Fund. Paul predicts that “current spending levels in the bill will bankrupt the [trust fund].” After his amendments were voted down, he opposed the bill.

John Lacquey, president of the North Central Florida Tea Party, sees EAS as a costly violation of the free market. Furthermore, he says, the government is just “playing a little bit” at the edges America’s debt problems. “When you get behind, you’ve got to make some serious choices, or someone will make them for you. . . . [Banks] will stop you, and someone will stop this country before long.”

You may wish to contact
Sen. Nelson: (202) 224-5274
Rep. Southerland: (202) 225-5235
Chairman Mica: (202) 225-9466
Chairman Rockefeller: (202) 224-0411

Zayida Baker covers Rep. Steve Southerland and Sen. Bill Nelson for Tea Party Patriots’ Government Accountability Project. She can be reached at zayida.baker@tppjournalism.org.